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Basel, 20 July 2013


The geography of technology innovation has changed markedly in the last decade as world R&D budgets have more than doubled and are more dispersed than ever on the planet.  Multinationals have shifted their R&D centers to big markets, including Asia, pushing small market countries like Canada at the losing end of this shift.  At the other end, international venture capitalists scroll public R&D to arbitrage new intellectual property, low cost production and big markets.

As a result products are getting smarter and product cycles are becoming shorter.  Yet new innovation tracks offer richer potentials when services and user experience are actually integrated early into the innovation framework.  It is a race track out there for innovation projects and speed to market counts as the new bible.  If you are first to market and you crack it well, you can lock in your leadership position for many lucrative years.   You slip and a fast follower takes over, just as happened to RIM.  Project execution is now at a premium.


Project planning is the new testament of project management:  when and where projects are diced up into steps, milestones, stage gates, critical paths and budgets. This is a well known management territory and experts abound to build upon this foundation.  But the winner of the steeple chase is usually not the one with the best initial plan, but who that learns the fastest along the way.  Management capabilities in execution nearly always trump smart technology and creativity in the innovation race track. What makes the difference?  Consider three capabilities that often fall outside the planning phase but are recognized to make big impacts between success and failure in projects:

1. The art of building great teams

2. Insisting on a framework for learning

3. Working on the right target


Building ‘great’ teams is a management skill that is much neglected.  Over 50% of the important work accomplished in organizations is done today in teams in one form or the other.  Yet little thought is given to the art of composing great teams.  About every executive can recall a nightmarish experience at college or university, when a dysfunctional team led to draining frustration.  We can all shudder at the glimpses of those memories.  When teamwork in companies is poorly planned, teams often end up taking the road of ‘exhaustion or death by endless meetings’.

Setting up great teams requires a look at a few key elements:  Composition, spark and evaluation.  Great team leaders take a very careful look at composition, in its different angles:

–          Assessing the skills needed, particularly new ones

–          Choosing the best people, whether from inside or outside

–          Striking the balance between shared employees and dedicated members to a team

–          Including people who are natural boundary spanners in the organization

–          Considering outside people to challenge conventional wisdom that needs a shake out

–          Thinking about the skills to effectively work with external partners

–          Finding a dedicated space for the team

–          Planning for conflicts : anticipate and resolve

–          Remembering that trust and respect are the ghost elements of great teams

Great teams pick the right people with the resilience to overcome obstacles, and with the skills to convince the regular performance engine to market the innovation.

A spark or a mission

Team leaders know that people seriously engage in their role and responsibilities when a mission calls to build something special, or sets a stretching goal that translates into a group challenge.  A great team needs the spark to ignite the tinder of motivation. A great team needs an inspiring mission.

Project evaluation

Team leaders think at the outset about decision rights, evaluation metrics and proper incentives.   But they know that at the end of the day, compensation works best when it recognizes not only the results obtained, but also the effort put in and the learning progress achieved.  Reward only results and you will soon shy away talented people.  Reward learning, and you will quickly make mistakes in the right direction, build momentum and advance team spirit!


Planning counts but learning is key.  Where most teams fail in learning is how they treat assumptions of cause and effect.  By and large, most critical assumptions in most projects are poorly communicated, poorly understood and, sadly, quickly forgotten.

Results don’t speak for themselves.   But discussing results without its relevant assumptions leads to intuitive interpretation and value left on the table.   Negative results are dreaded, errors are camouflaged and corporate politics permeates the process.

Great team leaders formalize the learning process:  plan, budget, predict and learn.  The predicting and learning part ought to be formally channeled on paper.  The discipline of learning is simple enough:

Step One

Predict outcomes

Discuss arguments and critical unknowns

Describe assumptions about cause and effects, and about innovation and sales

Step Two           

Set up a forum to compare results and predicted outcomes

Assess the lessons learned

Step Three        

Plan or review the next step


For many innovation teams the product is THE target: a bundle of features, performance attributes, look and design.  Immense efforts are delivered at making product development meet the ideal product specs.  This is hard enough to achieve in normal times, and it is a mission for heroes when new technology is involved.  But what is often critically overlooked is the fact that customers buy a lot more than just the product.

They also buy a level of service, a defined utility, some productivity and cost savings, an ease of transaction, a user experience, a bundle of emotions and even a stepping stone to personal agendas.  They rarely buy just a product in the
narrow sense of it, but innovation teams focus essentially on the product in the narrow sense.  This ‘market gap’ can be devastating at the stage of commercialization.

A ‘market gap’ is a terrible marker that the company is at risk of developing a technical object that functions and operates well, but which does not attract buyers in the markets.  In a nutshell, it does not really become a product and it disappears by the way side. The ‘gap’ grows when RD works in silos far away from markets, when pre-commercial investments are skipped, and when conversations are not steadily held up with prospective customers. The gap afflicts numerous start-ups, isolated R6D labs, and many new product initiatives in large companies.

Leaders of great teams dedicate the time, the effort and the funds to find out about the desired outcomes wished for by customers.   The desired outcomes are in fact THE right targets and will influence the innovation project or the product development if they are identified early enough.   The simple and powerful reason that the desired outcomes are critical is that they are closely linked to either the key buying criteria or the buying process.

The steeple chase is won by great teams.  Great teams win because they choose the right target and because the constant learning they generate steers them in the right direction and reduces the risks of failures.

Andre Du Sault, MBA (LBS), MPA (Harvard)

DS&H develops practical innovation tools since 2008.  We  have trained more than 300 executives on the best innovation practices.

Previous blogs on innovation:

Innovation Step 1:  The suggestion box: a bag of gold nuggets or crackerjacks?

Innovation Step 2:  From a hunch to a blueprint: How to improve a good idea that will rally organizational support

Innovation Step 3:  Redefining the innovation committee: Choosing projects, crafting a portfolio, building the future.


Posted in Innovation & organisation, Management ideas, Strategy & globalisation.

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2 Responses

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  1. Doug Noftall says

    Thanks, great read. Can’t wait to discuss this with my team especially because we just launched a new priduct, and naturally share ideas with clients who also are innovators.

    • Anduu says

      Vraiment un grand merci pour ce travail.Je suis tjouours impatiente de de9couvrir les nouvelles infos, meame si j en connais quelques unes, cela prouve que je suis sur la bonne voie.Merci encore.

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